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Harris says abortion legislation doesn't mention the word 'abortion' for legal reasons

The Health Minister also said he wants the Bill to be inclusive of members of the trans community.

harris Health Minister Simon Harris at today's Oireachtas Health Committee hearing. Source: Oireachtas.ie

SIMON HARRIS HAS said the word ‘abortion’ is not mentioned in the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill due to legal advice.

The Health Minister and members of the Oireachtas Health Committee are meeting today to consider amendments to the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill.

A number of TDs want the wording of the Bill to be changed, with Solidarity–People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith saying not using the word ‘abortion’ is an “obfuscation and a deliberate ignoring what’s going on here”.

Harris denied this is the case, saying there is “no hidden agenda”. He said he is “more than happy” to arrange a briefing for committee members in relation to the legal advice he has received in this regard.

He said he has been advised that the wording of the legislation should mirror the wording used in the Constitution and what people voted on in May’s referendum (when 66.4% of voters backed repealing the Eighth Amendment).

Harris said changing the wording wouldn’t change the content of the Bill, noting: “None of us want to do anything that would accidentally undermine … the Bill”.

Ultimately, this and other amendments relating to wording were withdrawn.

The Bill has already passed its second stage vote in the Dáil and there are 180 amendments to be discussed by the committee – some of which overlap and are being grouped together in terms of discussion.

The committee went into private session for a period earlier today to discuss certain groupings – with some TDs viewing them as “confusing”.

Only minor changes are likely to be accepted by Harris, who wants the legislation to closely mirror the proposals published before the referendum, during the hearings. 

GP-led 

A number of TDs have proposed that the definition of ‘medical practitioner’ in terms of who can provide abortion services be broadened to include nurses and midwives, not just doctors.

Harris said the government needs to get the service up and running first before potentially widening this scope in the future. Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín and Peter Fitzpatrick (formerly Fine Gael, now independent) are among those who don’t want the definition broadened, saying services should be doctor-led.

Solidarity–People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger and Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly said practitioners other than doctors should be able to provide abortion services (as happens in other countries), with Coppinger noting how safe the procedure generally is.

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell said going beyond a doctor-led service at this stage would “over-complicate” the situation.

Smith said she thinks most people who voted in the referendum took ‘GP-led service’ to include nurses in GP centres, given how often nurses carry out services such as smear test in this setting as well as due to the current strain on the GP service.

3 TDs Bríd Smith, Alan Kelly and Ruth Coppinger at today's meeting. Source: Oireachtas.ie

Independent TD Mattie McGrath opposes broadening the scope, saying: “I think we have to tread very carefully”, adding that a “huge number” of GPs and midwives don’t agree with abortion.

O’Reilly ultimately withdrew the amendment, saying she is happy Harris has agreed to review this topic in the future and take on board submissions from Midwives for Choice and the Midwives Association of Ireland.

Harris also said he disagreed with changing the Bill’s definition of termination of pregnancy from “intended to end the life of a foetus” to “an induced abortion to end a pregnancy using a medical or surgical procedure”, citing legal and medical reasons. 

“The reason I’m happy with this language is because the medical community is largely happy with this language,” he stated. 

Trans community

A number of TDs have raised concerns about how the language used in the Bill could affect members of the trans community who may require an abortion. Coppinger is among those to call for the term ‘pregnant person’ to be added to the Bill, saying the current wording is trans-exclusionary.

Harris said he would “dearly love” to amend the Bill to say ‘pregnant person’, saying he originally thought this would be possible, but has received legal advice to the contrary.

He said including this term could cause problems for trans men in terms of other services they currently access, adding that including trans-inclusive language in this Bill might unintentionally cast doubt on all other legislation which doesn’t include it.

Coppinger said she fails to understand how this is the case, noting that members of the trans community have expressed concern about accessing abortion services. Harris said he is willing to discuss this issue with representatives from the community.

Compulsory review

Minister Harris has added an amendment of his own to the bill, placing a legal requirement on the Minister for Health to carry out a review of abortion laws after five years of its existence. The committee, while raising concerns over whether or not five years is too long agreed to add the amendment.  

Timeline

Harris has also clarified why a time-limit on the likelihood of foetus surviving after birth of 28 days is in the legislation at the committee this evening. 

The bill as it currently stands states that a termination can be carried out if the “presence of a condition affecting a foetus that is likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before, or within 28 days of, birth”. 

The majority of TDs on the committee called for the section to be removed from the legislation and instead placed in the medical guidelines. 

However the Minister stated the section with the inclusion of a specific number of days, has been inserted in response to medical professionals calling for clarity on the legality of a termination. 

He also stated he didn’t want to open up the possibility of terminations in the case of “disability as an unintended consequence of the legislation”. 

Those opposing a set inclusion of 28 days in the legislation repeated their calls that details such as this be included in the medical guidelines on abortion and not in the legislation. 

Minister Harris said he had taken medical and legal advice, that he is attempting to offer those on the frontline clarity on when a termination is legally allowed under the law. He said the proposal would allow a doctor make a decision of terminating a pregnancy when they “reasonably believe the baby would not survive after 28 days”.

Minister Harris has agreed to bring the legal and medical advice before the committee.

The committee will continue to discuss amendments to the Bill later today, tomorrow and on Thursday.

Among the more high-profile amendments yet to be discussed are calls to include provisions in the Bill for the use of ultrasound imaging 24 hours prior to termination, and requiring a “dignified disposal of foetal remains”.

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Órla Ryan

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